Monthly Report: December 2013 Albums

1. BeyoncĂ© - BeyoncĂ©

I was happy that I did my 2013 albums list late enough that I could include this, but the 2 weeks I'd had to listen to it at that point were only enough to know that it was great, not necessarily think about it too much. This album is fucking nuts, though, the way she dropped it out of the sky with videos for every song made it feel more special but it's great outside that context. And I'm glad I listened to just the songs for a while before getting the CD/DVD for my birthday and was able to take in the 'visual album,' which is takes parts of the album to another level. But really it's just kind of fascinating to watch one of the biggest sex symbols of her generation, someone who's co-written the bulk of a pretty interesting and idiosyncratic catalog but still gets characterized as a dull perfectionist, write songs about beauty and perfection and feminism that are as smart and complex as "***Flawless" or "Pretty Hurts," is pretty awesome. Even the overtly sexual songs like "Rocket" and "Partition" have these other themes creeping up on the periphery, in addition to whatever defiance might inherently exist in embracing your sexuality after getting married and having a kid. Even the musical raw materials, which might've been boring or commonplace when first assembled by Timbaland or Ryan Tedder or this Boots guy, seem to be elevated by her vision and her voice, tied together into something bigger and more ambitious. I may be less enthused about some tracks like "Superpower" and "Mine," and I'm already getting sick of hearing "Drunk In Love" on the radio, but this album still holds up together remarkably well as a 70-minute experience.

2. E-40 - The Block Brochure: Welcome To The Soil (Parts 4, 5 & 6)
For the fourth year in a row, E-40 has released two or three albums simultaneously, bringing his output so far this decade to ten albums. Maybe someday I'll have some perspective and can say whether there's a big gap in quality between any of the albums or what the best songs are, but as is I just feel like I have to tap into all these hours and hours of slaps and enjoy it for what it is. This trio doesn't feel as immediate or impressive on a production tip as the 2012 albums, or at least it doesn't have any really obvious "Function"-level standouts, but I'm still enjoying it, "When You Gone Let Me" and "Mister T" are dope.

3. Sevyn Streeter - Call Me Crazy, But... EP
R&B sales have been pretty terrible for a while, especially for new artists (Frank Ocean is the only new artist to go gold the last few years, not even Miguel managed to). But it's still depressing that seemingly every newish R&B artist who's has a breakthrough radio hit in the past few months has only gotten to release an EP, with a full-length album somewhere on the distant horizon (August Alsina, Rico Love, Jhene Aiko, Ty Dolla $ign). Sevyn Streeter is the most aggravating case for me because they didn't even put her great first hit, "I Like It," on the EP, just the Chris Brown version of "It Won't Stop," and the 6 new songs on here are evidence that she could probably make an awesome album right now. The hook to "Call Me Crazy" is a little over the top, but "Come On Over" and "nEXt" are some of the best R&B tracks of the year. 

4. Ellis - The Education Of Ellis

Other than the single with Styles P. I heard most of this album for the first time on the night I interviewed Ellis while he was in the studio finishing the mixing and mastering. So it was fun to finally sit down with it on my own after my article came out and get to hear that it was as dense and personal and well crafted as I thought it was going to be. I don't like to compare Baltimore rappers to each other because I feel like they deserve to be considered individuals, but Ellis's flow and accent reminds me so much of Mullyman sometimes that I wonder if they came from the same neighborhood or something, and that's not a bad thing, plus he's totally got his own style and perspective that's different from Mully's. Check out the album on DatPiff

5. Brendan Benson - You Were Right
The Posies and Brendan Benson were two of the acts who really ignited my interest in modern power pop with their '90s albums, so I loved the show I saw on their great 2010 tour together, where Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow from The Posies played in Benson's backing band. And it's been cool to see that collaboration continue, with Auer and Stringfellow playing all over Benson's last two albums (country singers Ashley Monroe and Sarah Siskind also all over this). This and 2012's What Kind Of World may not be Benson's best, but then it's kind of hard to even say -- his first two albums, One Mississippi and Lapalco, were both great in very different ways, but every album since has blended into the next more and more, so there's a sense of diminishing returns even if his way with a hook is still strong. 

6. R. Kelly - Black Panties
After spending most of the year poring over R.'s back catalog and anticipating his return from Love Letter retro purgatory, I wouldn't say my hopes were sky high for Black Panties, but it didn't quite hit the spot. It's better than Untitled, but not by a huge margin -- the overly modern "turn up" type songs like "My Story" and "Cookies" wear badly, and "Marry The Pussy" isn't as good as the "I'm N Luv (Wit A Stripper)" remix verse it riffs on. But the smoother stuff, like "Genius" and "Right Back" and the Kelly Ro feature, those tracks really rescue the album for me, it's got some jams. And "Shut Up," even if it's already a couple years old, is just a glorious album closer. 

7. Q-Tip And Busta Rhymes - The Abstract And The Dragon
I enjoyed breaking this mixtape down for Complex right after it dropped, but doing that also made me highly aware of how much it was a retrospective of their collaborations (pretty much all of them, except for that "Poetic Justice" remix they did recently, unless I'm forgetting something?) rather than a showcase for new music, of which there was only a few minutes. This thing is still just a kick to listen too, though, these guys are two of my favorite of MCs of all time and I don't hear them enough anymore, "Thank You" was a great reminder, although I'm annoyed that its buzz already seems to have died out. 

8. Twista - Back To The Basics EP
Twista is another one of my favorite MCs of all time who doesn't necessarily have the legacy he deserves. Maybe it was because he was so successful with R&B records, but really a lot of those records were great and everybody knows he can spit anyway. Still, it's fun to hear him do a quick 7-song EP that's pretty concentrated on beats and rhymes (there's still an R&B hook on track 3, though). The production is just functional, though, I'd love to hear Twista on some really interesting, creative production sometime.

9. Ariana Grande - Christmas Kisses EP
I approve of the idea of a Christmas EP instead of a Christmas album, a lot of times the latter wears thin once you pad out the initial few good ideas to album length, so why not just stop at 13 minutes? And this one is especially good, because it fits Ariana's whole sugary persona, and she brings back some of the heavy hitters who made Yours Truly a great album -- Harmony "H-Money" Samuels produced all 4 tracks, and "Love Is Everything" is a good new Babyface co-write. The cover of Wham!'s "Last Christmas" works way better than the duet of "Santa Baby" with one of her Nickelodeon co-stars, but oh well, can't win 'em all.

10. Bridget Kelly - Cut To...Bridget Kelly EP
Of all the newish R&B singers currently struggling to get a major label album out and settling for an EP, Bridget Kelly probably has the roughest road because she hasn't even popped off with a hit single yet, although she's released a few good singles (and most notably had "Thinkin' Bout You" out before Frank Ocean released his version). This reminds me of Sevyn's EP in a lot of ways besides both having awkward ellipses in the titles, less consistent overall but "Goosebumps" and "S#1T Happens" are good, and "Special Delivery," ancient as it feels now, holds up well. I guess December is the new dumping ground for EPs, looking at this lineup (and I also dug Problem's EP that came out in the same month).

Worst Album of the Month: B.o.B - Underground Luxury
I remember digging "Haterz Everywhere" when B.o.B first came out, and then "I'll Be In The Sky" was a terrible Andre 3000 knockoff record, and he started with that 'Bobby Ray' stuff and the fluffy pop records with Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift, and he rode that wave for a couple years, and now he's 'Bobby Bandz' and doing songs like "We Still In This Bitch." And it's interesting, because there are a lot of great mainstream rap artists who have had that kind of spectrum of material that's appealed to different audiences, but they pulled it off and made it convincingly part of their persona, where this guy seems to be just running around trying to be everything to everybody. Even half of this album sounds like he made it while he was still on the sing-song pop tip and before he decided to get in the studio with Juicy J and Future. But where this album really pisses me off is when he tries to get away with a terrible song called "One Day" by tacking an interlude talking with Bun B on the end. 
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